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The Fear of God

Recently I was asked a good question: “Why should we fear God if God is good?” On one hand, the question presumes a proper theology: God is good! There is no evil in God, and God is not a human being with passions that can be fickle or change from moment to moment, something we ourselves experience all too often. And since God is also all powerful, we should be thankful that he is also good. Can you imagine if he were all-powerful but, like the mythical gods of Olympus, given to passions, hurling thunderbolts in his wrath? That is truly a fearful thought.

But if God is not a Zeus-like Olympian and is all good, all the time, why do we fear him? The answer lies, I think, not in the question of God's goodness but in ours. Or, rather, our lack of goodness. Because we are not all good all the time but have thoughts, passions, habits, and actions that are anything but good we properly feel the fear of God.

A man standing at the foot of a great mountain which he must climb might well experience fear. That fear of the mountain is a sort of reverence in the face of its awesomeness. But it is also a fear rooted in his own smallness and in the daunting task which awaits him and which rouses in him the question, “Am I up to this?”

The problem so often today is that we do not see God like the climber sees the mountain, as great and awesome. We have brought God, in our minds, down to our size and made him like us. And herein lies the great modern theological problem: with all of our science and technology and knowledge we, mistakenly, have shrunk our conceptions of God down to fit our minds. It is almost exactly the opposite sin of the ancients who created Zeus-like gods, filled with passions, in the human image but imagined them as super-powers. We, too, have kept the notion of God being in our image, having emotions and passions like us, but rather than magnifying him like the ancients we have shrunk him down to our size. Where they rendered the gods magnificent and frightening we have rendered God small and nice, seemingly removing the danger and threat but, concomitantly, his awesomeness.

But it is essential for us to recognize that this so-called God that we have created is every bit as mythical as the gods they created. We have imagined him nice and safe rather than great and terrible, but he is a fantasy of our imagination all the same. A nice, little God doesn’t exist.

The way out of this fantasy is not for us to return to the mythical gods of Olympus, fearful and frightening, but to destroy all of our idols so that we can know the living and true God. This God is absolutely good, but he is awesome in his goodness and in his love. The hymns of Holy Week, particularly, are marked by a profound awe and fear precisely because we are aware that the One on the Cross, crucified in weakness and humility, is the all-powerful and all-good King of Glory.

If, in Holy Week or any week, we catch even a glimpse of that goodness and love, we are faced with the climber’s question, “Am I up to this?” For the mountain that we face is not some mere pile of stones but the Cross. And the Cross, for us, is always a question, one that demands a response that cannot come lightly. For to ascend this mountain will demand all that we are: all our faith, all our hope, all our love. Or, to state it in the words of our Lord as he defines the greatest commandment, we must love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Like the mountaineer there will be no place in this climb for excess baggage. We will be required to strip away everything - every weight and every hindrance - that would prevent us from the ascent of the Cross. And this is fearful, because we are afraid of letting go, not only of the things of this world, but of our hopes and fears and passions for this lower ground in order to ascend the heights. It is, however, only in the divine ascent of the Cross that we will truly find ourselves and discover the One who is, finally, the good, the true, and the beautiful, our beginning and our end, our joy and our life.

With love in Christ,

Fr John.

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